The State of K-12 History Teaching: Challenges to Innovation

Lisa Hutton, Tim Keirn, and Dave Neumann, May 2012

In the last decade, developments in history education have been poised to deepen the quality of K–12 history instruction. A growing body of scholarship has challenged the conventional classroom emphasis on the past as heritage and the memorization of facts, asserting instead that studying history necessarily involves "thinking historically." At the same time, professional history organizations have reached out to K–12 history instructors and institutions, offering to partner in improving the quality of history instruction. But these developments have been seriously constrained by two challenges: a decline in quality teacher preparation programs and difficulties in implementing more effective instruction. The first challenge stems from the traditional separation between academic departments and postgraduate teacher-education programs, and the second relates to the school reform movement. As trainers of current and future teachers, the authors of this piece share a perspective about the important role universities play in preparing teachers to provide high-quality history education for all children, the problems that have limited implementation of such instruction, and steps to advance more promising approach to history teaching.

Promising Developments

Students and adults often describe their K–12 history classes as boring and pointless. These criticisms seem justified when instruction emphasizes only memorization and factual recall, or hews to a "heritage" approach that celebrates cultural strengths—whether American or "Western"—while minimizing historical conflicts in an effort to instill civic pride in American children.

In the last decade, a more robust model of instruction has gained momentum in history education. Influenced by cognitive psychology and its insights into the active nature of the learning process, history educators have articulated a model of learning that emphasizes student "inquiry" and the critical thinking skills distinctive to the professional disciplines of history and the social sciences: significance, causation, continuity and change, and other conceptual skills. History educators have increasingly turned to primary sources, even with younger elementary students, to help them engage in disciplinary work. In examining the "raw material" of the past, students learn to read critically and skeptically. Some teachers introduce students to conflicting secondary accounts to help them grapple with the contested nature of studying the past. Rather than simply memorizing facts, students marshal facts as evidence in constructing responses to open-ended historical questions. Inquiry-based classrooms provide space for critical assessments of our national and global pasts. The careful reading of texts and the creation of persuasive arguments highlight the central role that history-social science instruction can play in the development of both critical thinking and literacy skills, a point underscored recently by the inclusion of historical reading and writing skills in the Common Core Standards for English-Language Arts developed by the National Governors Association.1

Lack of Integration

The impact of these promising developments in history education has been limited by trends within teacher preparation programs and K–12 reform efforts. The traditional bifurcation between the history department and the college of education at most research universities and colleges has led to an institutional separation between the scholarly discipline of history and the preparation of future K–12 history teachers.2 California, which trains one in every eight teachers nationwide, provides a useful example. In the Research I institutions, such as those in the University of California system, and virtually all private universities and colleges, entry into and completion of the secondary social-studies credential program is based on passage of the California Subject Examination for Teachers (CSET) that determines subject matter competence for certification without consideration of the candidate's degree.3 Hence, history departments have no direct or formal links to credential programs housed in the college of education.

In contrast to Research I institutions, teaching-intensive universities, like those within the California State University (CSU) system, focus on preparing teachers, promoting disciplinary thinking, and mediating historical knowledge to aid learning in K–12 schools. Many CSU history departments play active roles in secondary-school teacher preparation through coordinating social studies credential programs. In some cases, history faculty share responsibility for supervising student teachers and teaching history-social science methods courses. Moreover, the majority of CSU curricula have state accredited Subject Matter Preparation Programs (SMPP) in history-social science; these are normally housed in the history department and incorporated either as a track within the history major or within an interdisciplinary social science major.4 Candidates who complete an accredited social science SMPP have taken a minimum of 45 units in history and social science courses that are aligned with the content of the California state framework and standards, a comparatively extensive course load.

However, the disciplinary focus and level of involvement of history departments at teaching-intensive institutions in teacher preparation is increasingly exceptional, a trend unlikely to change in the near future. Currently only 17 of the 74 accredited universities and colleges in California that certify history-social science teachers have accredited SMPPs, and 15 of those reside in the CSU system. Since 2002, 34 institutions either dropped or lost accreditation of their SMPP in history-social science. Even within the CSU system, six campuses have dropped their SMPPs since 2003, and with them, the formal affiliation between history and teacher-education departments. This decline of the SMPP in secondary history-social science is in part a consequence of the growing burden of state requirements, which, in conjunction with rising financial pressure to shorten the duration of degree completion, limits the amount of instructional and curricular time. The reduction in SMPPs comes at the expense of pre-service instruction devoted to deeper history content knowledge and disciplinary understanding. With the corresponding rapid expansion of CSET authorization within the state certification process, neither a history major nor even history coursework is mandated for secondary history teaching. Future history teachers are not being as well instructed in historical scholarship as they were in decades past and—perhaps unintentionally—the state has sanctioned that decline.

Unintended Consequences of Reform Efforts

The second trend limiting the promise of history education innovation is the movement towards increased accountability and development of curriculum standards in K–12 education. Though the standards movement sparked by the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 provided needed guidance for instruction, the implementation of standards has proven problematic in history-social science. High stakes testing, part of the larger accountability movement, has intensified since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, and has limited courses of study in schools across the nation.5

In elementary schools, the emphasis on accountability has led to a well-documented marginalization of history.6 NCLB does not require testing in history. Like California, few states assess student proficiency in the discipline as part of their state accountability programs prior to high school and, as a result, students in some of the lowest-performing elementary schools receive very little, if any, history instruction. In various studies, teachers have reported that more than 60 percent of their day is spent teaching language arts and mathematics, leaving social studies (and other subjects) to "left-over" time. Not surprisingly, teachers perceive little support from school administrators for history instruction.

If history-social science were a valued component of the school curriculum, teachers would receive access to high-quality preparation and materials.7 Elementary teachers often feel uncomfortable teaching history, a concern they attribute to their lack of content and pedagogical knowledge—deficits that relate back to university preparation. Elementary assignments range from kindergarten through sixth-grade—a wide span in terms of content and the specific needs of learners. Yet there is little ongoing support to help teachers develop their grade-level expertise in teaching history. At the middle and high school levels, administrative pressure to prepare students for a multiple-choice state assessment often leads teachers to emphasize coverage of factual knowledge. The emphasis on factual memorization directly contrasts with the current focus in history education on historical inquiry and historical thinking.

To combat these pressures on students and teachers and prevent further marginalization of history in the schools, the entire K–16 community must develop practical strategies to intervene. In this respect, the ongoing collaboration between K–12 teachers and professional historians holds promise. Professional associations such as the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the World History Association have advocated recently for increased involvement in the preparation of K–12 teachers, proposed changes to teacher preparation programs, sponsored teaching panels for K–12 participants, and provided support for Teaching American History grant projects. Other recent initiatives developed through K–12 and university partnerships aim to provide classroom materials that, on the one hand, reflect historiographically-informed inquiry methods and, on the other, clearly align with state K–12 teaching standards. Thus, teachers can engage students in historical thinking through using the content students must know for standardized tests. Together, these efforts represent the potential for K–12-university cooperation and have helped to make such partnerships central to models of successful K–12 professional development.

Challenges to the effectiveness of collaboration remain. The federally funded Teaching American History grant program, which has provided opportunities for history teachers to collaborate with professional historians, is no longer being funded. Relatively few teachers attend conferences hosted by historians and the scholarly community, and when they do, teaching panels tend to remain segregated from panels for academic historians. Even conferences specifically dedicated to the needs of K–12 teachers have seen a significant decline in attendance as funding for professional development has shrunk.

In sum, a dynamic new research field in history learning can advance the importance of disciplinary practices associated with historical thinking. This research underscores the value of history education as a means for promoting analytical thinking and facilitating expository literacy, and it challenges widely held public notions of history as heritage and impartial factual retention. At the same time, the American Historical Association and other scholarly societies have been vocal advocates for raising the public and political visibility of history education, and for promoting a more concrete disciplinary connection with teacher preparation. However, for these worthy research and professional agendas to move beyond mere pronouncements, much work remains. Pre-service teachers cannot "teach historically" without disciplinary knowledge. For all its virtues, historical thinking is unlikely to make headway in public schools without the creation of (fiscally) realistic assessments to measure it. Finally, in light of the movement towards Common Core Standards, history will only regain curricular ground in elementary schools if supporters offer a compelling and well-evidenced case for its efficacy in improving literacy.

Lisa Hutton is an associate professor of education at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Hutton also serves as the co-director of the History Project at California State University, Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.

Tim Keirn has a joint appointment in the Departments of History and Liberal Studies and is the coordinator of the History-Social Science Credential Program at CSU Long Beach. He serves as the faculty adviser of the History Project at CSU Long Beach and Dominguez Hills and is the co-editor (with Norbert Schurer) of British Encounters with India, 1750–1830 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

David Neumann is the site director of the History Project at CSU Long Beach and Dominguez Hills. He also teaches history and education courses in the history department at CSU Long Beach.


1.For discussion of these voluntary national standards and their development under the National Governors Association, see

2. Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (New York: Norton, 2010), 76, 106, and 121.

3.The California Subject Examination for Teachers (CSET) replaced the PRAXIS examination in 2004 as the means by which candidates demonstrate subject matter competence for certification. Three subtests consist of only 35 multiple-choice questions, two short-focused essays (that is, one paragraph each) and one "extended" response (that is, two paragraphs). Hence, the CSET exam focuses on factual knowledge and does so in a cursory manner and without evaluation of a candidate's demonstrated historical and disciplinary skills and dispositions. Yet, under the NCLB program, history-social science teachers who have passed the CSET exam—regardless of their undergraduate degree and course of study—are deemed "highly qualified.

4. Data concerning the CSET and the SMPPs in this article is drawn from the California Commission for Teacher Credentialing web site at The authors have more than 25 years of teacher preparation experience at CSU Long Beach and Dominguez Hills. It should also be noted that most CSU campuses have integrated teacher education programs for elementary certification that often reside in liberal studies departments, but where their subject matter preparation is in specified coursework within the various disciplines aligned to the content of the state curricular framework. For example, at CSU Long Beach, multiple-subject candidates take three designated history courses in addition to a liberal studies history-social science capstone course (taught by historians) that focuses upon historiography, historical methodology and the scholarship of history learning and cognition. Tim Keirn and Dave Neumann both teach in this program, and the former holds a joint appointment in history and liberal studies (within the college of education) and also coordinates the secondary history-social science credential program in the history department.

5. See Center for Educational Policy, Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era: A Report from the Center for Educational Policy (Washington D.C.: Center for Educational Policy, 2007).

6. James S. Leming, Lucien Ellington, and Mark Schug, "The State of Social Studies: A National Random Survey of Elementary and Middle School Social Studies Teachers," Social Education 70 (2006): 322–328; Timothy Lintner, "Social Studies (Still) on the Back Burner: Perceptions and Practices of K–5 Social Studies Instruction," Journal of Social Studies Research 30 (2006): 3; Margit E. McGuire, "What Happened to Social Studies? The Disappearing Curriculum," Phi Delta Kappan 88 (2007): 620–624; and Phillip J. VanFossen, "'Reading and Math Take So Much of the Time…': An Overview of Social Studies Instruction in Elementary Classrooms in Indiana," Theory and Research in Social Education 33 (2005): 376–403.

7. Joyce Burstein, Lisa Hutton, and Reagan Curtis, "Elementary Social Studies: To Teach or Not to Teach," Journal of Social Studies Research 30 (2006): 15–20. See also Lisa A. Hutton and Joyce Burstein, "The Teaching of History-Social Science: Left Behind or Behind Closed Doors?" Social Studies Research and Practice 3(2008): 96–108. Eighty-eight percent of the teachers indicated that the increased emphasis on reading/language arts and math negatively impacted their teaching of history-social science.